Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck (1902-68) was a writer who was best known for his works written during the thirties, the period of the Great Depression, works which show great sympathy for the plight of the common man. Of Mice and Men, one of his most highly respected novels, is about the fate of two migrant farm workers. It was written in 1937, a time in which Americans were familiar with the spectacle of rootless people roaming the land and looking for jobs. This paper discusses three of the major themes that are in the book: 1] what people can do for one another if they practice decency and compassion and are capable of loving one another; 2] the fact that all people contain flaws and these cause them to suffer; 3] how life, in order to be bearable to most people, must have hope even if this hope is really only a dream.
George and Lennie are members of an underclass, the migrant farm workers of the thirties. Their lives are very insecure and they suffer economic exploitation. Taken together, George and Lennie show us one strategy for survival under pressure. Because George is, at heart, a good, compassionate, and decent man, and Lennie an innocent one, they are able to form an iron bond. They wander the country together and they share each other’s fate. George is somewhat sheepish about this bond and, at one point, suggests that Lennie is so much trouble to him—Lennie is physically powerful, but mentally retarded—that he ought to abandon him. But this is merely bad temper. He understands that their relationship is not just a case of him taking care of Lennie, but that the survival of both of them is helped by their friendship. He says, “We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us…If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us .” And Lennie breaks in, "But not for us…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you….” There is love between them and when, faced with an impossible situation, George has to kill Lennie, he says to him—and to the reader as well, “I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ‘ya to know .” The killing is an act of love, a sparing of Lennie from a worst fate. Here Steinbeck is telling us something about the necessity of love for survival, about the strength of the bonds it can create, and about the fact that in many cases it ends in sadness. He is telling us also that it will improve our life if we find it, but that life can not only deprive us of those we love, it may even, cruelly, force us to be the instrument of their death. These are universal themes.